Communication in intimate relationships.

Jason Brien.

There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. There are always going to be little ups and downs especially at the start of a relationship. The vast majority of time though, couples do not utilise the start of their relationship properly. They may only focus on going on fun dates and having lots of exciting sex that they inevitably forget the nitty gritty of really getting to know each other and learning how to communicate with each other effectively. Soon enough they are 1-2 years into the relationship and they are wondering why they have so many relationship problems. These couples find that resentment has built up on both sides and they lack the communication skills necessary to improve their relationship without professional help.

Poor communication leads to so many relationship problems its not funny. Healthy communication does not contain presumptions and assumptions. Healthy communication is built upon actual spoken words. For example, a hypothetical couple comes to me for counselling (‘John’ and ‘Susan”) and they recall a recent argument. ‘Susan’ says “All I wanted was some support from John”. The first question that I would ask ‘Susan’ is “Did you actually tell ‘John’ that you wanted/needed some support”? The most common reply is usually “I shouldn’t have to ask/tell him. He has known me for long enough”. This attitude of “They should always know me and my wants, needs, desires, etc” is a really toxic attitude. It is ALWAYS our responsibility to clearly and effectively communicate our needs, wants, etc., to others if we want those needs, wants, desires, etc., to be fulfilled.

If you are willing to sit in a stew of misery because you need support but you are unwilling to directly ask for it because you believe that your partner should just automatically recognise your need for support and so give it to you, then you really are not doing yourself any favours. You are simply perpetuating your own misery. It is another story completely if you do directly ask your partner for support and they refuse to support you because then at least you know that in reality they are being unsupportive (at least in this one incident). Just because someone is not supporting you does not mean that they have recognised that you need support and so have consciously chosen to withhold that support. I will then ask ‘John’ the question “So after hearing ‘Susan’ say that all she wanted was your support, did you at the time recognise that she did indeed need support”?

It is not unusual to hear ‘John’ say one of three things. 

  • “I did but because she got so angry with me the last time that I offered her support I thought it would be better just to keep my mouth shut and stay away from her this time”.
  • “No, I didn’t because she is always so strong and independent and she never asks me for support so I didn’t even think to ask her if she needed or wanted it”.
  • “I just didn’t know what to do or say”.

We can see through this example that healthy communication could have prevented some aspects of this support ‘issue’ between ‘Susan’ and ‘John’. If ‘Susan’ had of expressed her need for support directly ‘John’ would have been able to recognise that she needed support and so provided it if he wanted to. Also, if ‘John’ had healthy communication skills he could have directly asked ‘Susan’ if she wanted or needed support regardless of how ‘Susan’ responded the last time and regardless of how strong and independent he thought ‘Susan’ was.

You may recall that earlier I said that it is ALWAYS our responsibility to communicate our needs, wants, desires, etc, clearly and effectively if we want them to be fulfilled. There is a little loophole or technicality when it comes to this. Whilst it is technically true that we have the responsibility to communicate our needs, desires. etc., there are times when we may lack the ability to communicate our needs properly or effectively. Not everyone can recognise or communicate their needs, desires, etc., especially when they are upset because when we are flooded by emotions our rational thinking side of the brain shuts down somewhat. So, looking at the support ‘issue’ between ‘Susan’ and ‘John’ in a different way, it is reasonable and common for ‘Susan’ to not ‘know’ or ‘understand’ that it is her responsibility to communicate her need for support especially when upset and so it is reasonable for her to feel unsupported by ‘John’.

This is where the communication before and after the ‘upset’ moments become extremely important. Having regular earlier conversations about support and what support looks like can help ‘John’ to support ‘Susan’ when ‘Susan’ is upset and unable to communicate her needs for support (and vice versa of course). Likewise, having a conversation after can alert ‘John’ to what he could possibly do next time. Of course, ‘John’ has to be willing and receptive to apply this new knowledge the next time or nothing will ultimately improve between the pair. When couples have gone years without communicating properly or effectively, they have to try much, much harder and they will inevitably face setbacks. The goal is to aim at working together to regain the ‘team’ mindset. Resolving these communication problems is going to lead to a more harmonious and peaceful relationship.

The single most important piece of advice I give to clients who want to improve their communication skills is to approach everything from an exploratory perspective rather than an accusatory perspective. Rather than being angry and saying “You didn’t support me when I needed you most” try shifting the conversations to “Did you recognise that I needed support”? “Did you know how to support me”? “Did my communication or body language express that I needed support”? Can you see how approaching the support ‘issue’ from an exploratory perspective can lead to more answers and solutions and doesn’t necessarily indicate that only one party is to blame? If you are constantly expressing your needs, wants, etc., and nothing is changing, you may need to reassess the relationship in its current form. Do you and your partner need to spend some time apart or reduce contact with each until something changes?